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April 2007

Sunday Night Journal — April 29, 2007

Homeless Conservatives: Making it Official?

As often happens, I’ve changed my mind at the last minute about this week’s journal. The catalyst is this post at Crunchy Con and its associated comments, which consider the place of social conservatives in a political realignment which might follow the current troubles of the Republican Party, which is something that’s been on my mind anyway.

Now, it’s not at all new for orthodox Christians to note their differences with both U. S. political parties. The hysterics about “theocracy” coming from people like Kevin Phillips notwithstanding, and the fact that millions of these Christians mostly vote Republican notwithstanding, and the visible attachment of certain prominent Christians (Falwell, Robertson, the Catholic neo-conservatives) to the Republican Party nothwithstanding, the truth, I think, is that most of us don’t have any strong sense of commitment to the Republicans. Prescinding from generalizations about others, and speaking only for myself, I’ve never had any illusions that any political party is anything other than, well, a political party.

In our system that means a coalition of a lot of different interests and a lot of different ideas, held together by the belief or hope that they have enough in common to enable them to agree on a substantial number of policies and to unite behind candidates committed to those policies. The Republican party, loosely considered the conservative party, is a unified expression of conservative ideas and sentiments only in the paranoid fevers (and fund-raising letters) of the left. At a minimum it’s a coalition of social conservatives of whom most but not all are Christians, pragmatic business interests, foreign policy hawks, and libertarians. Anyone capable of defining these terms should be able to see at once that their interests are not identical, although there may be a good deal of overlap among them. I sometimes further simplify this by combining the latter three groups under the term “right-wing,” which is, obviously, not the accepted way of using the term, but seems to me a useful way of separating aggressive nationalism and doctrinaire capitalism from conservatism. The Iraq war, for instance, I would call a right-wing enterprise, but not a conservative one (even though many conservatives support it, and most have not actively opposed it).

The Republican Party is in trouble, and it’s entirely possible that it may decide that its road to survival involves ignoring the social conservatives, who of course have always been disliked and resented by some elements of the party anyway. And whether or not that becomes a deliberate strategy, one can see several scenarios that would cause social conservatives to defect: for instance, the nomination of Rudy Giuliani for president.

This possibility produces no emotional reaction in me at all. My attitude toward the Republican Party has always been notably cold: I have never seen in it enough of my convictions to enable me to identify myself with it, and have regarded it only as the party more likely to do something I want it to do. The only leverage I have in pushing it where I want it to go is my one vote. At what point does it become reasonable for me to withhold that vote?

To withhold my vote would mean either abstaining or voting for a third party. For a number of reasons which I should think are obvious once I’ve described myself as a social conservative, I’m not going to vote for a Democrat as president. I won’t say I would never vote for one, but I don’t foresee it. The argument against this course—not voting, or voting for a third party that has no chance of winning—is that it’s in effect a vote for the party you like least. If you view one party as being at least marginally better than the other and yet do not vote for it, you’ve made it more likely by one vote that the marginally worse party will win. This logic is ironclad; it’s simple arithmetic, and you have to accept it if you’re considering this course.

It’s not, however, the end of the story. Your vote only has persuasive power to the party if they need it to win, and if there’s a chance of your withholding it. If they can take it for granted—truly for granted—you have no power. They can ignore you without risk. If the party is moving away from where you want it to be there may come a time when you have to give the leash a yank, even if it means giving a victory to the party that actively opposes you, because if you don’t you’re going to end up with neither party considering your wishes of any importance whatever. This logic, too, is ironclad, I think.

The time may come when social conservatives are required to issue that reminder to the Republican party. It may come in the 2008 election. But there’s a risk in doing this: when you pull on that leash, it may break or slip off. The party may find that it really doesn’t need you, in which case you could find yourself on the sidelines, yelling to no effect. We may be about to find out just how much purchase socially conservative principles have on the Republican Party and on the electorate in general.


Music of the Week — April 29, 2007

Patty Loveless: Mountain Soul

This aptly-title collection is pure straight-up country music, which is the kind I like. I don’t listen to all that much country music, and when I do I like for it to be the genuine article, not just pop music with twangy vocals and a fiddle. Mountain Soul could be loosely classified as bluegrass. More precisely, it comprises bluegrass, gospel, and Nashville-style tear-jerkers about love and loss, the sort of songs that could have been (and for all I know were) sung by Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn in their primes, but without Nashville schmaltz. There are no electric instruments and no drums: just virtuoso players on mandolin, banjo, guitar, fiddle, and bass, and Loveless’s archetypal country voice, joined on the choruses by that high taut harmony singing that does funny things to your chest and spine.

I’m less than crazy about two or three of the songs, and the album as whole comes across more as a series of independent songs than as a unified work. On the other hand, some of the songs are killers, especially the chilling “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” a portrait of life in the coal-mining country, which may belong in the ”unforgettable“ category. This is just the thing to clear the palate if you’ve accidentally ingested a serving of what apparently passes for country music on the radio these days.

Here is the All Music Guide entry.


Dances With Trains

For the most part I've never found the comedy classics of the silent film area to be terribly funny. Chaplin, for instance: I'm not sure I've ever laughed out loud at one of his films. So when we started the 75 minutes of Buster Keaton's The General one night last weekend I fully expected to fall asleep before it was over.

But not a bit of it. Once it gets rolling, so to speak, this movie is an absolute delight, a long precision romp featuring Keaton, two armies, and a whole lot of railroad equipment. If there's such a thing as genius in physical comedy, this is an instance of it. The word "classic" is thrown around way too loosely in the film world, but it certainly applies here. I actually want to see it again, an impulse I've had with very, very few silent films.


I Hate It When This Happens

I'm checking in a software module that I checked out back in December (rcs, for any Unix folks who might happen to read this), meaning it's available to be modified by me and only me. When I check it in I'm supposed to include a log message that briefly explains the mod. I list the changed code and can't remember why I made the change. In fact I don't even remember making it. This is third-party software to which we apply local mods, so I go looking in last year's archive of the vendor's tech help list for info. I find a nice thorough explanation right away: in a message posted by me.


Music of the Week (playing catch-up)

As you may have noticed, Music of the Week has sort of run aground over the past month or so. Among other things, certain obstacles have arisen to my listening routine, making it difficult to spend enough time with one work in the space of a week to come up with anything I'd trust as a definite opinion.

I've just posted the entry for Easter Sunday, Bach's St. Matthew Passion, back-dated so that it appears in correct chronological order. And I hereby declare an official hiatus for the weeks of April 15 and 22, and will attempt to resume the normal schedule after this week. We'll see how I do. Music of the Fortnight is always a possibility.


Why We Must Talk About God

"Anything less is a form of theft..."

Archbishop Chaput rocks. As Ben points out in the comments, this speech by Archbishop Chaput posted at First Things is terrific. A few of the best passages:

Only one question really matters. Does God exist or not? If he does, that has implications for every aspect of our personal and public behavior: all of our actions, all of our choices, all of our decisions. If God exists, denying him in our public life—whether we do it explicitly like Nietzsche or implicitly by our silence—cannot serve the common good, because it amounts to worshiping the unreal in the place of the real.


As Christians we need to live our convictions in the public square with charity and respect for others, but also firmly, with courage and without apology. Anything less is a form of theft from the moral witness we owe to the public discussion of issues. We can never serve the common good by betraying who we are as believers or compromising away what we hold to be true.


The common good is what best serves human happiness in the light of what is real and true. That’s the heart of the matter: What is real and true? If God exists, then the more man flees from God, the less true and real man becomes. If God exists, then a society that refuses to acknowledge or publicly talk about God is suffering from a peculiar kind of insanity.

There's a not completely useless discussion at Crunchy Con.


Sunday Night Journal — April 22, 2007

American Exceptionalism and the Culture War

Pardon me if I’m announcing my solution to the equation 2+2=X. I’ve been thinking about the question of so-called “American Exceptionalism,” raised in this post and its comments, and I may have come up with an observation that’s perfectly commonplace among people who study these matters on a regular basis.

But I’ll proceed anyway. It occurred to me that the sense of exceptionalism is a factor for both sides in our current cultural conflict. Despite their intense opposition to each other, both are rooted in the tendency to regard the founding of America as some sort of definitive break with the past, at least symbolically. And they basically think this break a good thing, though they disagree about why it was good.

Let me make clear, in passing, that I don’t think America (United States of) is “exceptional” in any intrinsic sense that would imply an exemption from the general limitations of history and the human condition (hence “so-called” above). I’m not even sure that the belief in exceptionalism—by which I mean something stronger and more clearly held than the normal human belief that one’s own people and nation are superior to others—is terribly exceptional: many civilizations seem to have thought of themselves as divinely founded and/or favored. What may be unusual, if not unique, in America is the particular form of our exceptionalism: the belief that we represent an elemental fresh start for the human race, a chance to walk away from history—literally from an Old World—and get things right.

Contrary to the desires of both sides in the controversy, it’s untenable to view the nation, either in its founding or in its subsequent history, as exclusively the expression of a Protestant Christian or a secular skeptical world-view. (There is of course the Catholic argument that the Protestant revolution was the first step toward the displacement of Christendom by secularism, but whether or not that’s true it was certainly not the intention of the early Protestants.) The fact is that what we would call today Protestant fundamentalism and religious skepticism were both very powerful influences in the founding of the nation.

Both believed they were doing something new, making a radical break with a corrupt world. Both had a strong sense of purpose and a sense that what they were beginning was the first step toward some sort of consummation. The Puritans wanted to build the kingdom of God. It’s tempting to say that the other party, the party of the Enlightenment, wanted to build a kingdom free from God. That’s not quite fair, but it does seem that they wanted a world that neither required nor desired God’s immediate attention. With time it has become more clear to both parties that the achievement of the two purposes are mutually exclusive, and for that reason among others the present-day successors of the tolerant deists of old are likely to be explicitly, sometimes ferociously, anti-Christian.

From the sociological and historical as well as from the Catholic point of view, both are deficient. Fundamentalism has the inherent tension of a faith which is totally dependent on a text: the tension always tends to be resolved either into narrowness and fanaticism or indifference, with the meaning of the text becoming so elastic as to be useless. (We’re going to see the same problem working itself out in Islam for some time to come.) Secularism, on the other hand—meaning a worldly order with no transcendent mandate for its axioms—is likely to lose or discard its moral compass and slide into greater and greater evil, or else simply fade away from sheer lack of will to live.

From the sociological and historical point of view, there is really only one institution on the American scene which can synthesize the insights of both parties: its non-negotiable core of transcendent truth puts the divine at the center of things where it must always be in the eyes of the truly religious, while its emphasis on mediation and on secondary causes allow a reasonable space for the liberty prized by secularists (though, unfortunately, no longer enough to satisfy most of them). Not least, it can correct in both the pride of exceptionalism, the sense of exemption and escape from history, the presumption of superiority. (Regarding that last: it’s true that much prestigious American opinion now holds that America is actually worse than almost everybody else, but this seems to me just an inversion of the pride, like the narcissist who is equally self-absorbed whether he thinks too well or too badly of himself.)

Of course this does not mean that Catholicism is true, nor am I advocating that the faith should spread because it would be socially useful. It’s funny, though, how the practical and the truthful turn out, in the long run, to be the same. In a contest between American secularism and American fundamentalism, I would bet on secularism; it seems to me in a stronger position and to have the momentum of history with it. I think it likely that the future of America will be either Catholic or monstrous.


Francesca's Books

As some probably know, the person who signs herself simply "Francesca" when commenting here is Dr. Francesca Aran Murphy of King's College, University of Aberdeen. She's the author of several books in the theology-philosophy area, including Art and Intellect in the Philosophy of Etienne Gilson, which I have not read (and may not be qualified to read), and Mary: Mysteries of the Blessed Virgin Mary (that link should take you to a Catholic Truth Society page on which the book appears), which I have read and recommend highly, and not only because I am quoted liberally therein.

The work on Mary, which is a sort of long pamphlet or short book, is one of the best and most helpful things I've read on the Blessed Mother. Whether it's my temperament or the times, I have a definite allergy to a lot of the traditional post-Renaissance devotional language, Marian and other, of saints like Louis de Montfort. I'm sorry, but I can't help it. Francesca's book is refreshingly straightforward and level-headed, but not in the progressive-reactionary mode of all too much post-Vatican-II writing about Mary. (By "progressive-reactionary" I mean the habit of mind which is formed mainly by the progressive reaction against the pre-Vatican-II Church.) There's no sense either of strained piety or of reaction against such strain, but rather an exploration, from a common-sensical point of view, of what Mary's specifically feminine and maternal place in the Church really means for us. For me this approach is paradoxically more mystical.

It doesn't look very easy for people in the US to order from the CTS web site. Francesca tells me they plan to update their web site to remedy this in the fairly near future. I'll try to keep an eye out for that and post a notice here when it happens.

The Gilson book was favorably reviewed in Touchstone some months ago. I was going to quote the review but apparently that issue finally migrated to the recycle bin and left this level of existence, and I can't find the review at Touchstone's web site, either. I do remember that the reviewer (James Kushiner, I think) mentioned that the text was "enlivened by touches of humor," or something to that effect. Fancy that.


Sunday Night Journal — April 15, 2007

Pacifism in the War of Words

I found the Marcotte-Edwards controversy of a few weeks ago extremely disheartening. In case you have a very short memory, here’s a synopsis: John Edwards hired Amanda Marcotte, impresario of a left-wing blog called Pandagon, to run web operations for his presidential campaign; Christians in general and Catholics in particular objected on the grounds of Marcotte’s apparent hatred of them and their faith; Edwards, after shuffling around for a bit, accepted Marcotte’s resignation.

Pandagon is one of those blogs which gives one the impression that its contributors’ normal state of mind is a combination of burning rage and icy contempt. I had visited it a few times before this controversy because Dawn Eden, irrepressible controversialist that she is, sometimes links to it in the course of arguing with opinions stated there. I’ve never spent much time there because I find the hostility oppressive, to put it mildly. I was appalled that Edwards, a man who wants to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate, would hire its most visible writer to manage his image on the web. As many a commenter pointed out, he looked equally bad whether one believed that he understood what he was doing, or that he did not.

Marcotte was, of course, vigorously and sometimes viciously denounced by Christians. Reportedly she received a number of physical threats, including graphically vicious threats of rape and death. Even if we dismiss these as the work of the anonymous nuts who always come out of the woodwork in any bitter controversy (right-wing bloggers get these kind of threats, too), the Christian response tended to answering malice with malice, which can achieve nothing except a momentary and unsatisfying pleasure of release not unlike that of lust, and made sure that the controversy left no one clean.

A few years ago my friend Reuben, a Mennonite minister, and I were discussing the notorious Westboro Baptist Church which seems mainly devoted to expressing its hatred of homosexuals. This was when the group had first appeared on the national scene and when they still seemed merely obnoxious, not entirely unhinged (“Pray For More Dead Soldiers” is one of their current slogans). Although we agreed that homosexual activity, like any other extra-marital sexual activity, is wrong, we were appalled by Westboro’s tactics. Reuben observed that in any encounter with someone estranged from or hostile to the Christian faith, as is generally going to be the case with a practicing homosexual, one ought to say and do nothing that cannot stand the light of the question How can I bring this person closer to Christ?

One didn’t get much sense that this question was much on the minds of the Christians who denounced Marcotte. The anger was natural, of course; I certainly shared it and probably would have expressed it if I had taken the time to comment. But to respond in kind to anti-Christian insults is not only ineffective—what are the chances that Marcotte’s hostility to Christianity was lessened by any of this?—but in contradiction to the Lord’s instructions: …but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

The Church does not hold that this admonition denies the right of self-defense against physical violence. Yet surely if there is any situation in which it ought to be taken as literal and binding it’s the response to a verbal attack. One might argue that an insult to the faith justifies or at least allows a more vigorous response than insult to oneself, but even there we should be guided by the question above—How can I bring this person closer to Christ? If a stern response is required, it should be delivered with dignity and respect and without personal animosity or insult. We should be guided by the hope that the person we’re addressing will come to understand the offense he or she has committed, which is not least an injury to himself, and not by the desire to inflict injury in response.

And if the attack is upon oneself, there seems to me no question but that we must turn the other cheek. If someone calls me a wicked fool, I have no right to say the same to him in return; if this is not true, then Matthew 5:38-48 is just pleasant poetry. I’m within my rights to deny the false accusation of a specific act. If someone says I robbed a bank, I can and should deny it, and disprove it if I can. But I’m not justified in assassinating his character in response. If he says he finds me loathsome and despicable, I don’t see how I can justify a response in kind. Is Matthew 5:44 meant seriously or not?—But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.

None of this should be taken as a desire to impose upon us all a bland “civility” which would preclude or discourage the utterance of any difficult truth. Genuine civility (to say nothing of Christian teaching) does not require suppressing the truth; quite the contrary. But one can tell the truth without rancor and hatred. Indeed, we’re obligated to do so. It’s a question of the salvation of souls, both our own and those of our enemies. Ferocious anti-Christians like Amanda Marcotte often seem to be in some obscure pain, and of course hatred itself is a kind of pain. When I face God I don’t want to have to explain why I saw fit to increase the pain of a person already suffering.


Giuliani to Pro-Lifers: Drop Dead

For those too young to remember, back in 1976 a headline on one of the New York newspapers that's not the Times (sorry, New Yorkers, I can't keep them straight) was credited with helping Gerald Ford lose the 1976 presidential election. I forget the details, although I'm sure a couple of minutes with Google would fetch them, but Ford declined to provide federal money to the city for some sort of emergency, and the headline was: FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.

Well, here's a similar moment for Giuliani. Giuliani vs. the pro-life movement: who will prevail? I think (a) Giuliani will not be the Republican nominee but (b) if he is, it will be the sign of a major political shift, officially marginalizing the pro-life movement.

Update: Here is the full context of Giuliani's remark. It's not as belligerent as the original story presented it. Still, I think it's clear that he shouldn't get pro-life support, and that his nomination would be a serious blow to the movement's political influence, which is little enough as it is. I mean, it's simple: Democrats can already win without us. If Republicans can, too, we're out in the cold.


Kurt Vonnegut, RIP

A number of remarks on Vonnegut's passing have made the point that his work is an enthusiasm one outgrows. And I suppose that's true. I thought of him as a one-trick pony, and had no great urge to read more of his work after the three or four that I did read: Slaughterhouse Five, Cat's Cradle, and I think one or two others. But on the other hand, I never really forgot them, either. Occasionally darkness can illuminate, and Vonnegut's dark humor did. A Christian has to give him credit for illustrating the problem of evil with enormous force, even if we think he missed the solution. Besides, you can hardly blame a man who witnessed the bombing of Dresden for holding a pretty grim view of life.

Michael Potemra, writing at National Review Online, says something about Vonnegut's work that I haven't heard from anyone else:

I met him once, a couple of decades ago, and he was a really sweet guy. Sweetness is actually a central quality of his best books...

That seems true: it's the sweetness of a kind man with a broken heart.

Dawn Eden has something similar to say about the man: that he was "gentle and gracious." The bitter disappointment concealed beneath his cynicism did seem that of an essentially sweet nature. He seemed to believe that in a meaningless world the best we can do is to be kind to each other--not a great philosophy, but not the worst, either.

Unfortunately, like many people of skeptical religious views for whom compassion and tolerance are the core of ethics, he fell into the natural trap of the naturally nice person: he seems to have permitted himself to hate those whom he believed to be uncompassionate and intolerant. Apparently the great ironist missed that irony. So it goes.

It's been thirty-plus years since I read Cat'sCradle. I think I'll read it again. That business about Ice-9 was very funny. But the short story "Harrison Bergeron" is not funny at all, and really isn't very typical of his work. Like I said, I haven't read all that much of Vonnegut's work, but I doubt that he ever bettered this story. Don't say I didn't warn you, though.


Kirk and Neo-neocon on Neocon

I did, as promised, finally manage to read that Russell Kirk essay on neo-conservatism, as well as more from the blogger who signs herself neo-neocon.

The Kirk essay is pretty much what what you might expect: he is partly sympathetic to the neo-cons, and partly skeptical: sympathetic insofar as the neocons are simply conservative (in Kirk's sense), skeptical insofar as they exhibit a tendency to turn democratic capitalism into an ideology. Skepticism wins out, overall:

In short, I am saying that a quasi-religion of Democratic Capitalism cannot do duty for imagination and right reason and prescriptive wisdom, in domestic politics or in foreign relations. An ideology of Democratic Capitalism might be less malign than an ideology of Communism or National Socialism or Syndicalism or Anarchism, but it would not be much more intelligent or humane.

You will have gathered, ladies and gentlemen, that I am disappointed, generally speaking, with the Neoconservative faction. I had hope that they might bring lively imagination into the conservative camp; instead, they have urged conservatives to engage in ideological sloganizing, the death of political imagination.

Without spending a long time on specifics, I'll just say I'm more or less in agreement with Kirk. Although I think the neos did in fact bring some lively imagination into politics, it was more in the way of shaking up a torpid liberalism than invigorating conservatism. His essay (actually I think it's a speech) was written in 1988, and I expect he would have disagreed even more with the neocons by now.

Neo-neocon's views, on the other hand, tend toward the inverse of mine: she is socially liberal, hawkish in foreign policy. However, her lengthy (and as far as I can tell unfinished) essay on her transition from liberal to neocon strikes a chord with me, as I've travelled some of the same territory. It's a very good read. She's honest and modest in her opinions, genuinely interested in getting at the truth. I'm particularly struck by her revisiting of her opinions about the Vietnam war. Whether my youthful opposition to it was right or wrong, it was at best naive and uninformed, and like neo-neocon I came to believe, when observing the complacency of the antiwar crowd toward the horrors that followed the U.S. withdrawal, that something other than the professed care for the Vietnamese people was a significant factor in the opposition. I still haven't sorted this out to my satisfaction. Neo-neocon's story stops--or at any rate I lost the thread--at this point, and I'd like to see her finish it.


Sunday Night Journal — April 8, 2007

Discovering Traherne (3): On the Cross

Improperly excerpted, Traherne might appear to be a proto-romantic heretic, viewing the soul as naturally good and pure until corrupted by the world, and “saved” by recovery of the primeval innocent vision. (Of course one can be a romantic and a Christian, but not a Romantic, in the sense of holding as a philosophy the post-Enlightenment emotionalism and subjectivism of Shelley The third Century contains passages which out-Wordsworth the man who gave us “splendor in the grass…glory in the flower”:

Certainly Adam in Paradice had not more sweet and Curious Apprehensions of the World, then I when I was a child. All appeared New, and Strange at the first, inexpressibly rare, and Delightfull, and Beautifull. I was a little Stranger which at my enterance into the World was Saluted and Surrounded with innumerable Joys. My Knowledg was Divine: I knew by Intuition those things which since my Apostacie, I Collected again, by the Highest Reason.

But Traherne’s mind is broad and orthodox enough to contain these views without losing sight of the Christian facts of life. Here is a selection from a lengthy rhapsody on the Cross from the first Century:

The Cross is the Abyss of Wonders, the Centre of Desires, the Schole of Virtues, the Hous of Wisdom, the Throne of Lov, the Theatre of Joys and the Place of Sorrows; It is the Root of Happiness, and the Gate of Heaven….

If Lov be the weight of the Soul, and its Object the Centre, All Eys and Hearts may convert and turn unto this Object: cleave unto this Centre, and by it enter into Rest….

That Cross is a Tree set on fire with invisible flame, that Illuminates all the World. The Flame is Lov….

Here you learn all Patience, Meekness, Self Denial, Courage, Prudence, Zeal, Lov, Charity, Contempt of the World, Joy, Penitence, Contrition, Modestie, Fidelity, Constancy Perseverance, Holiness, Contentation, and Thanksgiving. With whatsoever els is requisit for a Man, a Christian or a King….

But above all these our Saviors Cross is the Throne of Delights. That Centre of Eternity, That Tree of Life in the midst of the Paradice of GOD!….

There are we Entertained with the Wonder of all Ages. There we enter into the Heart of the Univers.

I bid you a good and holy Easter season.


Music of the Week — March 18 and 25, 2007

I’ve discovered that I can make these posts, which are almost always late, show up in their correct chronological position by changing the posting date. However, that means that they don't show up as the most recent post. So here’s a link to the March 18 entry (a selection of chants from the choir of a Byzantine Catholic parish). And here’s the 25th (Arvo Pärt’s Kanon Pokajanen.

Music of the Week — April 8, 2007

Bach: St. Matthew Passion

Now that I understand why this is considered one of the landmarks of music, I have no intention of trying to communicate that knowledge in a paragraph or two. Not that I would be able to do it justice at any length: aside from my lack of technical knowledge, there is in the end a relatively small number of useful words to say about a piece of music. Suffice to say that if you don’t already know this work, you probably should.

I’ll say something about the performance, though. It’s the 1961 recording conducted by Otto Klemperer and featuring legendary singers like Fischer-Dieskau and Schwarzkopf. Even I, who have no expertise and not very much experience of classical singers, can hear that much of the singing here is extremely fine. This recording is regarded as outdated, even obsolete, by some who place a high value on period authenticity: the forces are too large, the tempos too slow (this performance runs over three and a half hours, while many others are well under three), the emotion too sprawling and romantic, etc. But whatever the rights and wrongs of those views, I don’t see how these critics can listen to it without being moved, unless they have taken care to put on their ideological armor first. I don’t care whether it’s authentic or not; it seems extraordinary to me, and my guess is that it will be listened to as long as technology makes it possible.


Sunday Night Journal — April 1, 2007

I’m going to let further discussion of Traherne wait for a week, or maybe two. A topic more appropriate for Palm Sunday occupies my mind today.

Pontius Pilate and the Infinitely Thin Line

This sentence, a brief aside in the Passion according to St. Luke which was read today at Mass, strikes me as one of the most dreadful judgments in the New Testament:

And the same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together; for before they were at enmity between themselves.

          —Luke 23:12

When Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was released, some of the hostile non- or anti-Christian reviewers mentioned that Pilate struck them as a decent and reasonable man. If I remember correctly, this became part of the complaint that the movie was anti-Semitic, because Pilate, the Roman, is portrayed more favorably than, say, Caiphas and other Jewish leaders. But as several reviews of the reviews pointed out, this complaint said more about those who voiced it than about the film: it says that Pilate seems to them one of their own, a worldly man of tolerant sensibility, puzzled by the fury of the apparently irrational quarrel which his position requires that he settle. One senses that he thinks they’re all crazy, the would-be King of the Jews with his tagalong rabble as well as those who want him executed. He’s a civilized man who wants a peaceful and equitable solution, so he offers compromises. How about I just have him flogged? No? Well, how about we kill this other guy who actually committed a crime that we can all understand? No?

One of the most striking things about the Passion controversy was its revelation of a very high degree of ignorance about Christianity on the part of pundits and critics who count themselves, and are generally counted, as educated. Anyone who understands Christianity ought to recognize that the Gospel portrait of Pilate is not an admiring one. A Christian ought to have at least as much sympathy for Caiphas, whose objection to Jesus is religious and whose outrage is very much in order if his judgment of Jesus is correct; Pilate, arguably, is further from God. But though Pilate fails the test to which many of the actors in the Passion story are put, he fails it in the way that a secular modern man would be likely to do, so naturally the secular modern man finds him a sympathetic character.

What strikes disturbingly home to me about Pilate’s complicity is that, although I understand that he is at least as much in the wrong as Caiphas, I share the impulse of the secular critics to like him. I’m one of those people who can always see both sides of any dispute, and almost always believe that each side is in possession of some truth. I’d rather look for the common ground than stay at sword’s point over the disputed. And I’m almost always ambivalent about any practical question (down to the most mundane, which is sometimes a trial for my wife: Would you rather eat in here or on the porch? may be followed by several minutes of mental gridlock).

This mental tendency is a good thing in some matters, and harmless in many, but a fault where serious life-determining questions are involved. Truth and falsehood are ultimately divided by a geometric line—not the proverbial thin line, but one which has no second dimension at all. It is infinitely thin. You can’t really stand on it. There is no surface, so even if you think you’re straddling it every atom in your body is on one side or the other. You’re divided, and you can stay that way indefinitely about many questions, but not on a matter or in a circumstance that requires a decision, because in the end there is no indeterminate state between action and non-action: you may hesitate for a while, but eventually you either do, or do not.

Pilate has to choose either to have Jesus killed, or not, which, because he alone has the power of capital sentencing, means either accepting (however passively) or denying the charge that Jesus deserves to die. The question will not go away, even if he is allowed to postpone his decision; he can’t simply tell everyone involved to go home and forget the whole thing, and even if he did they would be back the next day. So, against his will, or at least against his better judgment, he gives his answer, choosing to stand on the same side of the line as those who demand the execution.

Suddenly Pilate is not such a decent guy. It’s as if a light has gone out in him. He has joined a bloody tyrant on the wrong side of the line, and now finds that they have a lot in common. They can be friends, in fact; complicity in sin unites them, with each able to affirm (as we would say today) the other. Pilate may have meant well to begin with, but he’s ended up in the same place as Herod, a man who executed at least one of his wives and several of his sons. He will discover, like Lady Macbeth, that no amount of hand-washing can erase the stain of that fact.